Tent sites at Wallace Marine Park on Wednesday, May 27. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A growing share of Salem residents consider homelessness the most-pressing issue facing the city, and most aren’t happy with how the city is serving the needs of unsheltered people, according to an annual city survey released Monday.

The percentage of respondents who said homelessness was their main concern grew from 41% in 2019 to 49% this year. That’s a jump from just 7% four years ago. Only one in four people surveyed were satisfied with how the city has coordinated social services to serve the needs of people experiencing homelessness.

However, the number of people who were satisfied with how the city has ensured residents have access to affordable housing increased slightly in the last year, from 27% to 34%.

Many survey respondents were pessimistic about Salem’s future. More residents, 41%, surveyed said they felt Salem was headed in the wrong direction. Two-thirds said they gave that answer because of a combination of factors both inside and outside the city’s control. Last year was the first time those who felt Salem was on the “wrong track” outnumbered their more optimistic counterparts. 

Portland firm DHM Research surveyed 400 Salem residents by phone and online, in both English and Spanish. Respondents were contacted from a voter list.

LINK: City of Salem survey

In response to an open-ended question about what respondents would like to see city officials address, half mentioned homelessness. The second most common concern was crime and drugs, which made up 6% of mentions.

John Horvick, DHM Research director of client relations and political research, presented the survey findings to the Salem City Council on Monday. He said the city’s concern about homelessness tracks with other communities along the Interstate 5 corridor. In Eugene, he said 44% of residents cited homelessness as their largest concern.

The group most concerned about homelessness are those in households earning less than $50,000 and voters who don’t affiliate with a major party, according to the survey.  

Salem has taken a more active role in addressing homelessness in recent years, giving millions to local service agencies. This year the city increased its funding for the Homeless Rental Assistance Program to $1.1 million, allowing it to house 75 people considered chronically homeless by offering rental assistance for up to a year, money for security deposits, addressing medical needs and intensive case management.

At the start of the pandemic, the city allowed camping in the “unimproved areas” of Wallace Marine and Cascades Gateway parks over concerns about the virus spreading under the cramped sidewalks where people experiencing homelessness had been living last winter.

In September, the city agreed to pay a security firm $312,000 to patrol Wallace Marine and Marion Square parks until June to prevent vandalism and provide park patrons a feeling of security.

About 57% of people were very or somewhat satisfied with the value they received from their taxes to fund basic services, like fire protection, parks and wastewater.

Fire, ambulance and 911 services received high marks with 87% said they are very or somewhat satisfied with them. This year was the first time the survey distinguished between police and other public safety services. Satisfaction with police ranks lower than other public safety services at 72%.

The survey findings noted that since the police killing of George Floyd, Americans have reported declining confidence in police. A Gallup poll in August found fewer than half of Americans said they had a great deal of confidence in police.

On Monday, Horvick noted that satisfaction in police was significantly lower amongst Salem respondents of color with 54% saying they were satisfied with service compared to 77% of white respondents.

Half of those surveyed don’t feel Salem is prepared for a natural disaster while about a third believe it is. But the survey showed a jump in the number of people personally preparing for an emergency with a kit, from 41% to 54%.

People generally felt rosier about the city’s maintenance of streets, sidewalks and bridges this year with 68% saying so, a 14-percentage point jump from last year. Satisfaction with library services fell from 74% to 60% as the Salem Public Library this year moved into a temporary location while the main library is under construction for seismic upgrades. 

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.

SUPPORT SALEM REPORTER'S JOURNALISM - A monthly subscription starts at $5. Go HERE. Or contribute to keep our reporters and photographers on duty. Go HERE. Checks can be sent: Salem Reporter, 2925 River Rd S #280 Salem OR 97302. Your support matters.